Down in Minus Three

by Dermott Fairfield

From CHM #37 July 2023

Horace stood there trying to convince the clear automatic doors that he was, in fact, a person. After receiving sufficient evidence, the doors opened in invitation. The indistinct, though pleasing, scent of the air freshener threatened to expose his soaked underarms by aromatic contrast. The hallway’s narrow journey led to a closed door and two black chairs that he would shortly learn were exactly as uncomfortable as they looked, the padding beneath the flaky leather having eroded long before he crossed paths with them. He was wearing the only suit he owned, hopeful that the jacket would disguise the poor job he did of ironing his shirt. With no one around to inform of his arrival, he sat down. As he waited, the wet patch of his underarms spread, and he could swear the ticking of the clock sped up to maintain rhythm with his heartbeat, though whether that was a sign of a faulty clock or a terrifying alteration to the nature of time, he was not entirely sure.

Suddenly the door opened, and out walked one man and one shell of a man. The man was jovial and approachable, while the shell was a vision of death, white as a fully cooked yolkless egg. They were at the end of an exchange, the man thanked him for his service with the company, but it seemed he just wasn’t the right fit, but certainly if he needed a reference he could expect a glowing recommendation. Receiving none of this, the shell muttered a number of individual words. Horace didn’t quite catch all of them, but the gist was something along the lines of,

‘Monstrous…’

‘Inhuman…’

‘Underpaid…’

The mutterings trailed off down the hall, faint monosyllabic echoes still bouncing their way to Horace’s ears. The man introduced himself as Mr. Edgar, and welcomed Horace into a spacious, though not egotistical, office. Mr. Edgar stepped in front of his desk and used it as a seat. The guest’s chair was positioned close enough to create a sense of intimacy, but not so close that there might be an awkward near brush when someone seated themselves.

Mr. Edgar began the interview, the sleeves of his nice, pit-stainless dress shirt rolled up in a laid back guy sort of look. Though closer inspection of the upsettingly neat folds suggested he was the type of person that put his socks on before his pants.

‘I was quite impressed with your resume,’ he said.

Horace found this strange, as he knew for a fact he had a decidedly unimpressive resume, and being hired based on said resume would certainly be a mark against Mr. Edgar’s judgement.

‘Oh, great,’ replied Horace.

‘Very well formatted.’

‘Oh.’

‘We like that sort of thing here.’

‘I see.’

‘Did you use a template?’

‘No, it was all me.’

‘Outstanding work.’

‘Thank you.’

Horace could feel the sweat of his underarms connecting with the sweat on his back. He wondered if he was emitting an odour.

After some discussion about Horace being a great fit, Mr. Edgar refusing to be pinned down regarding specifics of pay, careful to acknowledge the many opportunities for growth, and the importance of supporting their people etc., it seemed Horace had the job.

‘To start with you’ll mostly be doing data entry, answering calls, ordering office supplies, feeding K’Shuug’Th the Great Cosmic Warlord, creating templates—’

‘I’m sorry what was that last one?’

‘Creating templates, for use in different departments of the office. I assume you’re proficient with the Microsoft Office suite? That resume was some damn fine work, I expect you’ll excel in that area.’

Horace was pretty sure that’s not what he’d said, but he also understood that he’s in a state of high anxiety, he hadn’t eaten, and he’d made a mental note that he must google what an unsafe level of bodily fluid loss is. In an impression of sanity, he assured himself that he was in fact asking for clarification about the templates, and that the answer was satisfactory.

‘Great, yeah. That sounds good.’

‘We’ll start you Monday. Thanks so much for coming in.’

Mr. Edgar put his hand out to shake at a height that forced Horace to stand in order to comfortably reach it.

Mr. Edgar walked Horace to the door.

‘Oh one more thing.’

‘Y-yes?’

‘They’ll explain it in the orientation, but we do casual Fridays here. And we take it quite seriously.’

Horace searched for a smirk that never appeared.

For his first week, Horace was assigned to an eight year veteran of the company, named Patricia. He was assured that she would be the perfect person to shadow while he learned the ropes, Patricia being a ‘top notch lady,’ with whom he would no doubt ‘get along famously.’ He found little truth in either of those statements, and a week of close proximity, suffering under the annoyed whir of fluorescent lights operating day and night to make its victims forget that human beings needed vitamin d, it appeared neither did she. The bright Hawaiian shirt he wore on Friday drew the occasional discreet scowl from her, who seemed to have a very different definition of the word ‘casual.’

The sheer whirlwind of tasks refused to form the necessary synapses to create memories for Horace, and he was getting the sneaking suspicion that after this first week he would not only be expected to recall these tasks, but also be able to accomplish them without guidance. Patricia, when she bothered to explain what she was doing, went through it like an instruction manual, and Horace had never, ever managed to process any kind of information as written in an instruction manual.

‘Did you get that?’ she said, with a tone of exasperation just small enough to ignore, but big enough to make sure Horace definitely received the barbed edge of the question.

‘Uh, sure. Something about interns?’

Her nostrils flared ever so slightly.

‘I need you to grab three interns, and meet me down in level minus three.’

‘Minus three?’

‘It’s a quirk of the building. In the elevator, just press the blank button next to three.’

Horace was in the elevator with the three interns he’d collected, certain he’d snagged the best of the bunch. He was attempting to convey the impression that certainly he’d been down to level minus three many times, what a mundane experience this was for him, just put in the work and you fellows will be in my position before you know it. This went well enough pretty much up until he had to press the blank button next to three, there being a blank button on either side of three. There was a maelstrom of theories circling Horace’s frontal cortex. Were both buttons the same? Did one button result in some terrible consequences? Could Patricia, humourless as she is, possibly be playing a joke on him? The moment he took to consider these possibilities was long enough for the interns to start making some very annoying confused noises that came across as very performative, and Horace’s esteem for each of them dropped. He pressed the button to the left of three, secretly hoping for the terrible consequences option that would give the interns their due punishment.

The elevator doors opened to a menacing darkness, the cool draught wafting forward in mockery. There were only two visible light sources: a wooden torch that was aflame and gripped into a holder on the wall, and the more distant guiding light of Patricia’s cigarette. Horace removed the torch, noticing the barely lit snapshots of an inexplicable medieval surrounding. He advanced towards the cigarette, the brightness briefly escalating with each puff.

Patricia inspected what remained of her cigarette, then stamped it out with her shoe. She took the torch from Horace and slowly waved it toward the interns, looking at them like cigarettes with very few remaining drags.

‘What is this?’ Horace asked.

‘Level minus three. Come with me.’

This last part was directed at the interns, who nervously watched Patricia open a large metal door with a key from an ancient looking rusty ring. Fearing their replaceability in the company, they followed her in. Horace peered after them, refusing to cross the boundary of the doorway. The room was pitch black, besides the torch light, which was getting smaller and smaller. A sound he hoped wasn’t breathing, because what on earth breathes like that, swelled into grumbling and the flame was suddenly gone, the rapid sound of clopping on stone grew closer until Patricia appeared, and slammed the door behind her with a resounding thud, never once bothering to look at Horace, whose hope that the sound wasn’t breathing had evaporated as the grumbling took on a vicious, indefinable quality mixed in with the much more familiar screams that one might expect from human vocal cords.

Patricia lit up another cigarette, while Horace was fairly certain his heart was about to explode. He was trying to formulate the right collection of words to enquire about what in the holy hell just happened when she interrupted his progress.

‘How are you with Excel?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Microsoft Excel? They said you were good with that sort of thing.’

‘Sure… I know Excel’

‘I need you to update our inventory management spreadsheet. We’re adding some new supplies.’

Horace spent the next week hoping for the complete mental breakdown that would prove conclusively that he’d lost his mind. Unfortunately, it never came. Patricia had given him the obligatory ‘let me know if you need anything’ talk with a look in her eyes that said you better not ever need anything. He was managing just fine enough to avoid scrutiny for any negligible mistakes he was making. He made it to Friday with increased confidence in his ability peppered with some comfort found in the mindless routine of the job. With all his work done just over 5 minutes before the end of the day, he sat back in his cubicle reflecting on his good, not great, job performance. Certain that if he could keep it up, he might even find himself in middle management someday. Just gotta keep his head down, do the work, and—

‘What are you doing?’ asked Patrcia, but it was more accusation than question.

‘Just updating some spreadsheets,’ he said, trying and failing to look busy pushing papers around his desk.

‘Why hasn’t the intern log been updated today?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The interns. I was just looking over it and there were none removed. Did you forget to update the spreadsheet?’

‘Update it for what?’

‘For the feeding, for god’s sake’

‘Feeding?’

Patricia’s face betrayed a momentary haunted expression, which she managed to keep at bay before it entered the realm of alarming.

‘Please tell me you didn’t forget to feed K’Shuug’Th.’

Horace felt his heart trying to bash through his sternum.

‘That… that was real?’

‘Real? You are—we all are, but you especially, are in deep shit if you don’t get down there with some interns right now.’

Then the clock hit five o’clock, and every trace of impending… something in her face vanished.

‘You better catch the interns before they go home. See you Monday.’

In no hurry at all, she and everyone else walked out of the office, ignoring the spasms of flickering lights and the thunderous wailing that shook the ground beneath them.

Horace only managed to wrangle two interns, all stuck together in the elevator down to minus three making an awkward lack of small talk. The doors opened, but while the flickering lights upbuilding were no longer an issue, the dreadful moans only got worse. For the interns, who knew nothing, it was scary. For Horace, who knew slightly more, it was terrifying. Nevertheless, he valiantly led them down the hall, brandishing the lit torch and feeling like an old gaoler with his rusty ring of keys. He opened the door, and one intern dared to boldly show some trepidation.

‘What is this? What exactly are we doing?’

‘I just need a couple of extra sets of hands. We’ll be in and out, and I’ll put in a good word for you,’ Horace attempted a wink. It did not go well both because it was too dark to really notice that kind of thing, and because he’d never once in his life winked and even in a very well lit room it would have looked bizarre and a little confronting.

The depths of the room welcomed all three with its best impression of an oven, choking them with the thick, rancid air. Horace put on a brave face, despite the fact none could see it. He marched the doomed parties forward, almost slipping on the strange mucousy substance that coated the floors, before a terrible glimpse of the tenant halted him, the torchlight revealing very little and far too much. Horace began a scream that he never managed to finish.

End.

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Dermott Fairfield is an Australian writer, animator, and filmmaker. He is currently finishing his last year of a Bachelor of Animation degree at university. His short animated film ‘Pit Stop’ appeared in the Sydney Science Fiction and AniMate film festivals. He is passionate about stories, and finding the right medium in which to tell them.

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